Authors: John Dechancie
He stepped into the chamber. Something crunched underfoot.
The darkness seemed to recede. He caught the glint of smiling teeth, a death rictus. Then another. Then piles of skulls and bones . . .
He turned to go but it was too late. The real doorâa mammoth slab of finely dressed limestoneâbanged down before he could barely move. Darkness adamantine fell.
He could hear nothing but the pounding of his heart.
That is the drip of water from a cistern. You will not die of thirst. You will, however, die slowly of starvation. You might be able to catch a dung beetle now and then. You may perhaps find a thigh bone to gnaw on. But you will eventually starve in here. Do you wish me to describe the sensations of such a slow dying?
He kicked bones out of the way, found a spot to sit, and did.
“Doubtless I can't stop you. Please begin.”
A willing victim! Hmm. I'm not sure I like that. Anyway, first come the unbearable cravingsâ¦
“what is this place, some kind of nightclub?” Max asked, wandering around the laboratory.
“Nope,” Jeremy said. He was seated at the work station of the giant mainframe computer that occupied the center of the floor. “It's a castle.”
“Looks like one. But what's it doing in this building?”
“It isn't in our office building. It's in another world.”
Max chuckled. “Is this the Twilight Zone or something?”
“Nah. I don't even remember that show, though I've seen a few reruns. No, this is Castle Perilous. It's kind of like at the center of the universe. Controls all space and time, and a bunch of different worlds. 144,000 of them, to be exact.”
“Look, kid,” Max said, walking over to the work station. “I don't know what your game is, but I really have to get back to work.”
“Hell, nobody ever believes it. Wait just a minute.”
Jeremy typed furiously on the keyboard.
“Okay, but I really have to get back.”
Max again took in the strangeness of the place. What in the world was all that junk in the middle of the floor? Looked like an assortment of jukeboxes circa 1950.
“What is that . . . stuff there. Thoseâ?”
“Computer,” Jeremy said.
“It's the Castle mainframe. I'm the chief of data processing around here. It's not a conventional computer. It works on magic.”
Max drained the dregs of his Coke and crumpled the can. “Look, kidâ”
“Don't call me that! I'm twenty-three years old.”
“Sorry. Listen, buddy, I have a deadline. Got to get back to work. Can I just go right through there?”
Jeremy stabbed one last key on the keyboard and sat back. “Okay, you can go back now.”
“It was very interesting, really,” Max said. “Good luck in whatever it is you're doing.”
“Thanks, but I think you'll be back.”
“I might stop back at that. So long.”
“See you in a bit.”
Jeremy watched his client duck through the red curtain. Then he opened a drawer and rifled it, coming up with a package of Twinkies. He put his sneakered feet up on the console, tore open the package, and began to eat.
After a not inordinate length of time, Max came running back through the curtain, his face pale. He was out of breath.
“That was quick,” Hochstader said mildly.
“What . . . what happened . . .” Max puffed, “to the place where I work? It's . . . it's gone!”
“Well, the economy's in a terrible state.”
Max took a minute to wheeze and hack, then yelled, “I looked all over the building! The name of my firm isn't even on the directory! I looked in the phone listings. Fenton Associates doesn't exist! But you're still here. Your office, this placeâ” Max looked around, then scratched his head. “Where the hell
this place, anyway?”
“I told you,” Jeremy said through the last bite of Twinkie. “It's in another world. This is Castle Perilous. Look, let's go back into the office. I need a soda and there's no machine here. I'd have to go all the way down to the dining hall. Come on.”
Jeremy led the way back through the curtain.
Max followed. Back in the office, Max stopped and turned about, struck by the place somehow looking subtly different. It was a little neater. Hadn't that computer been on a smaller table along the opposite wall?
“Who moved the furniture?” Max asked vaguely.
“Wait a sec,” Jeremy said. “I'll be back.” He walked out the door, into the hallway of the office building.
Max sat on a rickety chair.
“Twilight Zone,” he said, nodding. “I've found it. It's a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. It's all in my mind. I'm crazy. Crazy as a common loon.”
Jeremy returned shortly, slurping a can of soda. “Okay, I guess I gotta explain things.”
“Yeah,” Max said. “What the bloody hell is going on?”
“Well, first you gotta understand about Castle Perilous.” Jeremy sat at his microcomputer and threw one leg up on desk. “I stumbled into the place a few years ago. I got into trouble, and I was going to, you know, snuff it. I jumped off the roof of a building, but I didn't splatter in the alley like I was supposed to. I went through a spacetime warp, or whatever you want to call it, and I wound up inside the Castle.”
“Castle,” Max said dully.
“Yeah, it's this humongous castle, and it's in another world, see. Not our world, not Earth. Earth is just one of the thousands of worlds that you can get to, by going
Castle Perilous. It's a gateway.”
“Gateway,” Max said, trying to follow.
“Yeah. You step through a door or a window inside the Castle, and . . . jeez, you could be anywhere. On an alien planet, or some goofy world where they fight with swords, or anywhere. It's a lot of fun, really, living in the Castle. I mean, it gets hairy sometimes, and things start shaking, and crazy aliens come through every now and then and try to take it over. But Lord Incarnadine always chases âem out, and everything'sâ”
“Incarnadine. He's the king. The master of Castle Perilous, lord of this and that. He's King of the Realms Perilous, and other stuff. I always wondered how he could be a lord and a king at the same time, but he says his traditional title, in the Castle's world, is âlord.'Like a duke, or earl, or something. Which makes him vassal, really. But
the Castle, it's a world in itself, and in that respect he's a king, of the Realms Perilous. See what I mean?”
Max opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. He shook his head.
Jeremy said, “Look, I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. You saw the lab, how crazy it is. I could take you out into the hall and show you a window. It'll look out onto the Castle's world. But if I take you to the next window, you'll look out and see, like, a totally different world.”
Max took great pains to say, “Hochstader, listen to me. Tell me this. What the hell happened to
“I was coming to that. Like I said, Earth is just another of the Castle's worlds, and you get to it by going through a portal, like the one in the next room. That's a portal leading back to the Castle. It's a passageway between two worlds, the Castle's and ours. Got that?”
“Got it. I guess.”
“Okay. Now, you see, what I did was de-tune the portal a little bit.”
“De-tuned it. I did it with the Castle mainframe. Just tweaked it a little. And what you get when you do that to a portal is basically the world you started with, but one that's a little different.”
“Different?” Max said.
“Yeah, but the differences are minute. Like, for instance, in this de-tuned Earth, the place where you work doesn't exist, but everything else is pretty much the same.”
“I see. Why?”
Jeremy shrugged. “Hard to say. Maybe in this variation of Earth's history, things happened a little different. Was it your business?”
“No, it belongs to a guy by the name of Herbert G. Fenton.”
“Okay, so maybe in this world, Herbert G. Fenton didn't start that business. Maybe he started another business, or none at all. Maybe he doesn't exist in this world, or got killed long ago.”
“You know, now that you mention it . . .” Max got up and walked to the flyspecked window. “Now that you mention it, Herb is forever talking about that car accident he was in a few years ago, and how he almost gotâ”
Max trailed off, gazing out into the night. Then he turned toward Jeremy with a strange look.
Jeremy grinned, raising his arms. “So there's your answer. What's important, though, is what happened to
in this variation of Earth.”
Max frowned. “Me?”
“Yeah, you. Your history, your life story is going to be different in this different Earth. Your situation might be a little different. Or a lot different. Or . . . well, tell you the truth, I've been in this world before. Did some snooping, some detective work. And I think I have a deal for you.”
“A deal for me.”
Hochstader got up and strode to a coat tree in a corner, undraped a blue-and-white athletic jacket, and slipped it on.
He grinned at Max. “Feel like taking a little night air?”
The taxi made its way quickly through sparse late-evening traffic. It had begun to rain earlier, but now only a light drizzle fell. The cab driver was the silent type, seeming uninterested in the strange conversation that was going on in his back seat.
“Tell me again,” Max pleaded. “This âaspect.'It's a whole different world?”
“Universe, actually,” Hochstader corrected. Passing lights briefly illuminated his boyish, perpetually grinning face. “And really not very different in most respects from the one we came from. But as far as
situation is concerned . . . well, that's another matter.”
Max slumped back in the seat, his mind full of cobwebs. He looked out, seeing shadows that threatened half-conceived nightmares. “I don't understand . . .”
“It's all so simple,” Jeremy Hochstader said. “Let me ask you this. If you had to state your main problem in twenty-five words or less, how would it go?”
Max's thoughts drifted back to the endless hours of psychotherapy, of soul-searching, of futile digging at the root of his problems. “Easy. I'm a total failure. Everything I've ever tried or ever done has come to doodly squat.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Jeremy said. “I can empathize with that. My life's the same way, or would have been if I hadn't discovered the Castle. The Castle is a fun place to live, don't get me wrong, but there's one thing that's wrong with it.”
“It's not Earth. It's not home. I initially got the idea of searching for another Earth that was even better than the one I was born in. So I de-tuned the Earth portal, tried different tunings, each just a couple of decimal points off. At first I couldn't find any differences at all, until I heard a news broadcast. There was a different president, and he was the guy who was vice president in our world. The guy he replaced had a sudden heart attack. And I got this other idea people have better lives in some worlds than in others.”
Max raised his shoulders. “So?”
“Well, think of the possibilities. I discovered another thing, too. That most people are dissatisfied with their lives. No matter how good they got it, they always want something different, they always think the grass is greener on the other side of the road.”
“Fence, whatever. Anywayâ”
Max grabbed the kid's bony shoulder. “Look! What the hell does all this have to do with me? I want an answer!”
Jeremy indignantly removed Max's hand. “Get your mitts off the merchandise. I'm getting to that, I'm getting to that.”
“Well, get to it!”
“Okay! Listen to me. What's the obvious cure, the thing that would make your life a lot better?”
“I don't know,” Max said. “Don't you think if I knew
, I'd be doing it?”
“The cure is success! Nothing succeeds like success. Isn't that incredibly obvious?”
“No. Lack of success is a symptom.”
“Bullshit.” Hochstader crossed his legs sharply and sat back. “My brand of therapy is, like, real direct. If a client is dissatisfied with his life, I give him a new one. Forget all that crap about early toilet training, parents, arrested development, and the rest. There's nothing like a fresh start to wipe the slate clean. You're a chronic failure, right? And every new botched thing only reinforces your sense of worthlessness, making it all the more likely you'll fail again, and again, and again. It's, you know, a vicious circle.”
“Cycle. Okay, I understand what you're saying, and there may even be some truth in it, but . . .”
Max thought about it. Hochstader's analysis made as much sense as any other he had heard. “But what's this alternate world stuff got to do with breaking the cycle?”
“Real simple,” Jeremy said. “By starting fresh from a base state of success and proceeding from there, we turn the tables on the whole neurotic process. See, I do know something about psychology. I read a couple of books.” He waved a hand disdainfully. “Forget about what started the whole thing off. To hell with the cause of the neurosis. Seems to me most of this psychotherapy stuff underestimates the factor of chance in a patient's case history. Luck has something to do with it. We're all at the mercy of random forces. It's a tricky universe, Max. And if you don't like the way things have worked out in your universe of origin, you can slip over to a brand-new one.”
“But how . . .?” Max broke off, shaking his head.